Transfers and title challenges: League of Ireland preview

Shamrock Rovers season-ticket holder and Online Sport Editor Eoin Roche looks back over the Irish transfer window and ahead to the new League of Ireland season

A few months ago I wrote a piece asking students looking for a cheap alternative to the Premier League to give Ireland’s domestic league a chance. The Premier Division of the League of Ireland season kicks-off on the 16th February and to prepare you for the new season I think it’s important to understand how Irish clubs approach the transfer window as well as what to expect from the top teams in the coming weeks.

Overall, I expect this season to be a lot more volatile than its predecessor. However, nothing about the Premier Division is predictable – last year’s winners can find themselves in mid table obscurity and a team that scrambles away from the trap door to the First Division can end up fighting for european places or even the title. Why is everything seemingly so random?

Well, players move around more within the League of Ireland than maybe any other league in the world. Wages are so tight in the Premier Division that what may sound like insignificant increases in salary are potential deal makers and breakers for the players. This means, on a superficial level, players appear to be very disloyal. A perfect example of this is striker Mark Quigley, who had two spells at all three Dublin clubs over a seven year period.

This sounds ridiculous of course, could you imagine a player playing for the three biggest clubs in London, twice, over seven seasons? But, the wages across the Irish sea are a world apart to those our players earn, so it is a lot easier for Premier League, Championship or even League 2  players to appear ‘loyal’. I, in no way, blame players for moving if it means an extra few quid a week. It’s a job after all.

Irish Clubs are also routinely raided by clubs from the UK and, thanks to higher wages, if a half decent offer arrives, the player is gone. In this window, for example, Dundalk lost arguably their two best players, David McMillan and Patrick McEleney to St. Johnstone’s and Oldham Athletic respectively. Bohemians lost Warren O’Hara to Premier League Brighton and Finn Harps youngster Shane Blaney joined Doncaster Rovers. It’s just a fact that if the neighbours want a player, they will almost always get them. Most Premier Division clubs will make a minimum of 10 moves buying and selling in the transfer window, although most moves won’t involve a fee as players rarely have the stability of long term contracts in this country.

Cork City lost last year’s star player, Sean Maguire during the summer as he moved to Preston North End and their dependable holding midfield player Greg Bolger joined Shamrock Rovers over the winter break. However, Cork have managed to hold on to most of their remaining talent and have brought in some reinforcements from around the league and the UK. Even without Sean Maguire they still won the FAI cup at the end of last season and held on to win the league. I expect them to remain a strong team; however, unless Graham Cummins can bag 24 goals on his return to the club, as he did in Cork’s 2011 title winning season, I don’t expect them to run away with the league again, but having come from 2 goals down to beat Dundalk in the President’s cup last weekend, they look to be in the best position to retain their title.

Cork’s main competitor, Dundalk, have lost some major assets during the transfer window. And with new American owners taking over the club, there is a possibility that this will be more of a transitional season for Dundalk, even though they still have the best manager in the league and they held onto Sean Gannon despite interest from Shamrock Rovers. Dundalk have also made some interesting moves in the window, bringing in Lithuanian midfielder Chvedukas and Hungarian attacker Adorján. Dundalk have been the most consistent team in the league over the last few years and I doubt that that will change, but if the new signings don’t live up to their predecessors they may struggle to keep pace with Cork City.

Similarly, Shamrock Rovers began the window by losing two of their solid squad members as Simon Madden and James Doona both surprisingly joined St Patrick’s Athletic. Several other players left the club including David Webster and Ryan Connolly. Much needed defensive additions were eventually made with the signing of Ethan Boyle and former Ireland international Joey O’Brien. Rovers have also held on to young talent such as Trevor Clarke and Aaron Bolger. This should be a stronger squad then last season and I hope Rovers can mount a title challenge this year. Rovers loose attacking style is certainly entertaining but expect plenty of spills along the way too. They start the season with a trip to rivals Bohemians, which should prove to be a great showcase for what to expect from the league. It’ll even be on RTÉ!

St Patrick’s Athletic feel like the dark horse this year. They finished 8th last season but have had a good window, having swooped for two of Shamrock Rovers’ better performers. They also have veteran goalscoring talent in Christy Fagan, so keep an eye on how they start the season against Cork City, in what should prove to be a litmus test for Pat’s chances for the year.

Ultimately, no Dublin team looks set to take the league by storm this year, but supporting an Irish club is more about the journey than the destination. It’s about the cold Friday nights in tin sheds that some people claim are ‘stands’, it’s about taking trains to places you didn’t realise existed, it’s about listening to old men shout questionable things at referees, it’s about watching lads try to sneak 16 cans into the ground, it’s about being menacingly stared at by the Gardaí, it’s about hating Bohemians. Arsene Wenger said recently that 4 of the biggest leagues in Europe had already been decided in December, so maybe he should take a trip and come watch ‘the Greatest League in the World’.